As so many music writers have already said, 2022 was a great year for pop, especially pop in album form. Though the theory is not publicly widespread, I would venture that the reason may have been a post-pandemic reaction on the parts of artists and listeners. I don’t mean to imply that the pandemic is over, but since the authorities worldwide have decided that they can’t allow safety measures to interfere with economic activity any more, the restrictions (either mandated or requested) that governed our lives for the previous two years would no longer apply, and so musicians were allowed to regain their livelihood, which means playing in front of paying audiences. This development coincided with new music that had been piling up on various artists’ hard drives and which came out in a flood this year. However, whether the high quality of these releases was a function of their quantity—there was just so much stuff that came out—or some other factor, is anybody’s call, and might provide some enterprising music scholar with an apt topic for one of those pop music conferences I’ve never attended. In any event, it took me longer than usual to winnow my shortlist down to a top ten, and while doing so I noticed something that always happens to me but which I never remarked upon before: My favorite albums either were released very early in the year or were albums I discovered in November or December, regardless of when they were released. This would seem to indicate that those records which continue to thrill me after so many months make the strongest impression when I compile this list, but so do those that are still freshest in my mind. So I have to ask myself: Am I overlooking anything in between?
1. N’Djila Wa Mudujimo, Lady Aicha & Pisco Crane’s Original Fulu Miziki Band of Kinshasa (Nyege Nyege Tapes): The Nyege Nyege Tapes label has rewritten my mental programming with regard to African pop, not so much because it seamlessly incorporates electronics into the rhythmic invention I love the most about African music, but because the combination has opened up whole new avenues of appreciation for the way the artists express themselves emotionally. This ad hoc collective of Congolese street musicians may be the most extreme in that regard: playful, exhausting, vocally adept, and totally surprising from one moment to the next.
2. Renaissance, Beyonce (Columbia/Sony): The consensus best-of-year is a no-brainer on several levels: She’s got the cash and the connections, and her writing/production smarts are second to no one’s, so we can imagine what she was up to for the past three years. That she opted to channel her hopes and dreams and concerns into disco and EDM doesn’t mean she’s abandoned her classic soul prerogatives, just that she needs creditable assistance in making those prerogatives as vital as they’ve ever been. I’d say they’re even more so here given how purely enjoyable Renaissance is; which proves that she’s not only pop’s abiding monarch but its most powerful social force for the inclusion we demand.
3. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, Big Thief (4AD/Beat): This, at last, is the New Dylan for me, if a group could ever qualify for that hoary title. And it isn’t just Adrianne Lenker’s distinctly unconventional voice and lyrics that make the connection. It’s the quality of the songs as presentations in the moment, sounding like artifacts that have been around forever and which only you are discovering. “Spud Infinity” is as weird and wonderful as anything on the Basement Tapes, another collection where the individual genius of its creative center was subsumed into a band dynamic that projected a native genius. The intriguing thing about Big Thief’s rangey Americana is that it’s unique, a one-off proposition, so another Dylan cognate: Musicians will be copying this for decades without ever getting it.
4. Too Much to Ask, Cheekface (New Professor Music): Last year, I prematurely wrote off Greg Katz as Jonathan Richman’s passive-agressive spawn, but on his group’s third album his anxieties and the wit he taps to explain them combine in such an organic way that I now take him seriously, if only as a comic talent with a knack for the offhanded post-punk guitar riff. And that’s saying something, because punk is an over-extended genre whose pop appeal is its single-minded insistence on a direct response, something Katz fully understands as he alternates wildly between pithy one-liners about people he doesn’t care for and his total surrender to fear and desire, though I can’t decide which of those two impulses Cup Noodle provokes.
5. Wet Leg, Wet Leg (Domino/Beat): Though this duo’s debut represents on this list for the kind of post-punk cynicism that’s become de rigueur in Britain (Dry Cleaning, Yard Act), they’re young enough to appreciate the sheer enjoyment of the opportunity to shock and tickle at the same time, so being in love is described as “losing your shit” and appearing in some guy’s wet dream is the ultimate proof of ownership. The real fun, however, is in the details, most of which are melodic in nature, but some split the difference between canny calculation and just going with what feels good, as when Rhian Teasdale gets hold of line she likes and won’t let go (“…enough to make a girl blush…”). “Chaise Longue” is so much more than last year’s ode to youthful disaffection. It’s a symphony of personal style.
6. Lingua Brasileira, Tom Ze (Selo Sesc): The provenance of these songs is supposedly a theater piece about Brazilian Portuguese, so I would assume the singing is very important. That’s probably why Ze’s patented psychedelia doesn’t register as high on the pleasure-making scale as the feisty interaction between the lead vocals and the dense choruses. Sorry to be ageist, but is he really 86? Tony Bennett and Willie never sounded this supple, though that may have more to do with Ze’s groove, not to mention a melodic approach whose ecumenical reach is wider-ranging than Paul Simon’s. Age and its attendant spiritual needs may also explain the nostalgic embrace of Brazilian dance modes, which in the past was tempered by Ze’s penchant for messing in the Dada sandbox. The perfect introduction, as it were.
7. The Boy Named If (Alive at Memphis Magnetic), Elvis Costello and the Imposters (EMI/Universal): Released this fall as a “companion” to EC’s newest collection, this album was recorded live in the aforementioned studio during tour rehearsals with the inestimable Charlie Sexton adding a second guitar. In addition to meatier versions of the best cuts from The Boy Named If, it includes two signature Sir Paul songs, a Nick Lowe obscurity, the Stones tune you know EC would have killed to write, and a Byrds classic, all played with the kind of R&B ferocity their host city is famous for and sung with the distinctive coiled quality that never sounded more dangerously unsprung. It’s topped off with a remix of the album’s single by Tokyo-based electro-rap duo chelmico. The privileges of the lifelong professional who always has something to prove persist.
8. I Don’t Give a Fuck About This Rap Shit, Imma Just Drop Until I Don’t Feel Like It Anymore, $ilkMoney (DB$B): In a game where having the last word is the whole point, if not the ultimate triumph, this Virginia rapper throws so much stuff at the wall that even his track titles sound like punch lines (“A White Bitch Killed Gary Coleman,” “I Ate 14gs of Mushrooms and Bwoy Oh Bwoy”). Though the usual hip-hop street themes prevail, it’s drugs that make the biggest impression through both their stated use and implied effect. $ilkMoney isn’t as much about stream-of-consciousness as about getting everything out there before he melts into a pool of insignificance, because if there’s one thing he seems to fear more than anything it’s that he won’t be as good as his word, so he makes sure he has more than enough at his disposal.
9. ¡Ay!, Lucrecia Dalt (Rving Intl.): More theatricality from South America, though this time it comes via Berlin, where Colombian musician Lucrecia Dalt lives. Using a variety of Latin music forms, Dalt tells the story of an alien who tries to figure out what makes humans humans. Dalt’s Spanish lyrics are either sung with awkwardly clear diction or spoke-sung in a style I would more readily identify with her adopted city, but in either case it’s the music and odd instrumentation that set the atmosphere. Experimental without being too far out there, the album contains songs that are recognizably derived from son, bolero, and even salsa, and if they don’t exactly inspire dancing the way some of Dalt’s previous work did, they have a haunted, sentimental quality that connects on the first listen. Entertainment for, or by, extraterrestrials.
10. SOS, SZA (RCA): SZA’s second full-length finds her R&B skills finer-tuned and turbo-charged as her love life stalls in neutral. There’s rage and humor in her portrayal of relationships that only seem to end badly, but you have to hand it to her and her parade of production pals that nothing kills the vibe, even in a song called “Kill Bill,” a straight shot of sing-song tied to a bass line that seems to slither through the whole album like a unifying life force. Though her trademark fuzzy tone sometimes gets in the way of the flow and her classical pop stylings, you have to realize she isn’t using her natural sweetness to seduce. “I fuck him ’cause I miss you” is not a come-on. It’s a lament that’s made to sound like an affront.
Breaking the Thermometer, Leyla McCalla (Anti-): Conceived as a dissertation on the Haitian-American experience, the cellist-vocalist’s latest project is more personal than didactic, so the music is relatable, the singing often sublime.
Lucifer on the Sofa, Spoon (Matador): In a more reasonable world, Spoon would be acknowledged as the singles band of the 21st century.
Second Nature, Lucius (Mom + Pop/Disk Union): Sought-after backup vocal duo harmonize front-and-center on a batch of well-crafted dance pop tunes for adults who don’t have time for dancing.
Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville (Warner): Acting more like a master of ceremonies than a singer-songwriter, the upstart country star produces a concept album that crystallizes her jaundiced take on ex-urban Southern eccentricity. Hee-Haw for hipsters.
Hard Times Never Kill, Gonora Sounds (The Vital Records): Zimbabwean sungura from a father-son combo who honed their Afro-Cuban chops busking in Harare and then refined their style with a band on their debut album for a fully formed miracle.
The Loneliest Time, Carly Rae Jepsen (Interscope/Universal): Even with a Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s worth of producer-writers on each cut, Canada’s arena pop princess asserts her independence as a maximalist music maven, even if she has to drag Rufus Wainwright along for certification.
Bleed Out, The Mountain Goats (Merge): If you ask John Darnielle what he did during the pandemic he’ll say he watched a lot of violent crime movies, and if you don’t believe him he will hand you this record to prove you’re wrong, and then you play it and think, man, that’s a really good standard guitar rock album even before you note how many times he references open wounds.
Happy Hour, Hollie Cook (Merge): Second generation lovers rock icon (and daughter of two first-generation punk/new wave icons) sings reggae that’s acculturated more to the cocktail set than to the spliff crowd, thus redefining “lounge music.”